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Tuesday, 3 December 1985
Page: 2803

Senator PARER(4.57) —Prior to the suspension of the sitting for lunch we were discussing the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1985 and the Bills which we are debating cognately. I was concentrating my remarks on the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 3). I mentioned the restrictions placed on tertiary institutions by the Minister's guidelines which ignore the reality that there is already a great concentration of overseas students at a few institutions in Australia. This may occur for good academic reasons and need not be discouraged.

One contentious issue relating to the entry of overseas students into Australian tertiary institutions is the extent to which such students keep Australian students out. This is the cause of bitterness and misunderstanding. It conceals the real reason why some Australians who otherwise qualify for tertiary places are denied entry. The reason is that funding restrictions by the Government and increased demand force universities and colleges to impose more and more rigid quotas for entry. They, like hospitals under Medicare, are forced to ration places in a free system. As a result, many potential students miss out. Estimates vary but the number may well be as high as 30,000 for Australia in a year. There are certainly many thousands in my State of Queensland. The figures vary between 8,000 and 20,000 students who will miss out. These are deserving students. In such circumstances it is most unfortunate, but understandable, that those who miss out are upset when they see many overseas students coming in. Their reactions will only be reinforced when they observe that from now on overseas students will have two chances of gaining access to our tertiary institutions. They will qualify either as subsidised students who pay the overseas students charge or as full fee paying students.

Our own students are to be denied the latter opportunity for reasons that are not apparent. It is odd under the circumstances that the Minister claims, as she did in her March statement, that the new program will safeguard the rights of Australian students. I doubt whether those students or their parents will believe her. Perhaps the only way that some Australian students will be able to study the course of their choice will be to emigrate and then apply for entry as fee paying students. It is strange that at the same time as some Australian students are missing out others are continuing to be subsidised to drop out half way through their courses, without any financial obligation, while others are allowed to take many more years than necessary to complete their courses. However, as the Minister says: `Don't let anyone tell you that our education system is inequitable or inefficient'.

The problem is not that overseas students are allowed to pay full fees; the problem is that Australian students are not. Yet in a remarkable Press release on 17 October last entitled `Shack misses the point-again' the Minister claimed:

He is asking for the impossible. Our higher education system is merit based. He is calling for a policy that would replace merit by ability to pay.

This ignores the fact that under such an arrangement students would still be required to fulfil academic entry requirements. The Minister does not seem to realise that those currently missing out are qualified for entry already. The Minister's statement is even more remarkable when it is realised that many overseas students coming in at present are not selected solely on merit. As the report of the Jackson Committee to Review the Overseas Aid Program stated:

Students from developing countries applying for Australian Government scholarships must satisfy a multitude of requirements in their own countries and in Australia. They must be approved by their own government and are often selected on grounds other than academic merit. The criteria of the more influential government departments in developing countries tend to prevail. In practice, the process is something of a lottery because students and officials in developing countries are usually poorly informed about the range of courses available.

This makes nonsense of remarks about merit. It also reveals the rigidity of an education system which is monopolised by government and which prevents institutions from seeking their own levels of excellence. It is ironic that many overseas students who choose to come to Australia do so because of the parlous state of education policies in their own countries. In each case presented to me, subsidised students were studying here in Canberra at the Australian National University because of the inability to gain entry to a tertiary institution in their own country. Various reasons-political or whatever-were given for that.

It is all very well to seek education export markets. In fact, I think I indicated earlier in my remarks that that is a very praiseworthy thing to do. Usually however a country exports goods surplus to its own domestic requirements. We have the curious situation of seeking exports when we have an untenable education deficit which is of concern to thousands of young Australians and their parents.